Street Theater performance in Nepal. Five performers surrounded by a large crowd in the middle of the street.
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Acting to Change Child Marriage Perceptions In Nepal 

Sep 29, 2022

Child marriage, as a social norm, has existed since the beginning of time. Because of this, the perception, attitudes, and behaviors around child marriage are woven into the culture of many communities around the world. To un-do a practice like child marriage that is so personal and steeped in traditions, creative interventions like social behavior change communication strategies are required.

According to Human Rights Watch, “37% of girls in Nepal marry before age 18 and 10% are married by age 15, in spite of the fact that the minimum age of marriage under Nepali law is 20 years of age.” This loss of childhood by early marriage has ripple effects. It pulls girls out of school, results in early and dangerous pregnancies, deprives women and girls of economic independence, and is a driver of high fertility rates and population growth.

Our Future Depends On Hers

Acting together with the Janaki Women Awareness Society (JWAS) and with support from the Kendeda Foundation, Population Media Center-Nepal implemented two programs to challenge attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors regarding child marriage. By combining behavior theory, media industry insight, and community partners, we worked collaboratively to empower by entertaining.

“Janaki Women Awareness Society has been working to improve girls’ education and reduce the number of child marriages since 1993,” shared PMC-Nepal Country Director Rajan Parajuli. “They were the perfect partner to get our life-changing entertainment to a more focused audience.”

At 80 JWAS centers, Hilkor (“Ripples in the Water”), a PMC-Nepal radio show originally developed for a regional broadcast, became part of the curriculum. Through the JWAS network, 1,600 girls listened to Hilkor and discussed the character-driven, culturally relevant storylines with their peers.

“By adding Hilkor into the curriculum at JWAS, we were able to get our content in front of those most affected by child marriage,” said Parajuli. “The girls here were not only at the highest risk for child marriage, but they were also the most likely to create a wave of community inspiring change.”

Prior to starting the radio show, girls were surveyed to understand their baseline knowledge and attitudes on child marriage, domestic violence, and other topics. After the multi-year program, the girls were surveyed again to determine if their perceptions had changed.

The results of these surveys clearly demonstrated that transformative storytelling in group settings can be an effective way to open eyes, start dialogues, and empower individuals.

For instance, there was an increase in the percentage of participants who believed that getting married before age 18 has negative consequences post-programming (96%) compared to the earlier survey (80%). Belief that marriage before 18 had no negative consequences dropped from 9% to only 2%.

Similarly, the percentage of girls who had taken action to discourage child marriage increased from 12% prior to listening to Hilkor to 56% after listening to the show. And while more than a third of participants still answered “no” to this question during the endline survey, it’s important to note behavioral change is often the most challenging type of individual change to achieve and often comes after a change in attitudes and beliefs. This makes a 44-percentage point difference quite a remarkable outcome.

“Having the courage to make individual choices that ripple into societal changes are inspiring,” shared Parajuli. “We noticed that a lot of the girls in our program felt the pressures to do what had always been done in their communities, but also a deep need to take different actions.”

Sangita, a student at one of the JWAS centers during our programs, was one of many girls empowered to take action while listening to Hilkor. She bravely communicated lessons she learned from Hilkor‘s characters to her family when they approached her with an early marriage. Thanks to the programming, she found the strength to say “No” to an early marriage.

Acting as Her Own Hero

Sangita used inspiration from PMC-Nepal’s “Hilkor” to communicate she wished to delay her marriage and stay in life skills classes.
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For the second stage of the partnership, PMC and JWAS students took Hilkor beyond classrooms and to the street.

Trained in community theater and the PMC methodology, 60 girls from JWAS performed scenes from Hilkor live, bringing drama and modeled behaviors to life. PMC’s Community Street Theatre program reached more than 11,000 audience members and inspired action among individuals. When asked “to what extent did the performance spur you to take some action, or make change,” 75% of attendees answered, “very much.”

Replay, Reinvent, and Remake Norms

By expanding upon an already existing social behavior change communication radio show, PMC-Nepal and JWAS used the power of storytelling to challenge child marriage norms and uplift the most affected and most likely to drive cultural change – like Sangita, who will not get married until she is at least 20 years old.

While child marriage is still prevalent across Nepal, every social behavior change communication project PMC-Nepal undertakes empowers more advocates to take action on these norms. At Population Media Center, we are committed to ending child marriage around the world – both for the sake of young girls’ futures and self-determination and to support global reproductive health and justice.